Teslin’s Tlingit renaissance
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
When they moved from English to Tlingit, a noticeable pride entered the voices of leaders and elders.
Thunderous drumming, clapping and cheers shook the Heritage Centre after each speaker at the opening ceremony of Ha Kus Teyea, a gathering of Tlingit from across Alaska, BC and the Yukon.
A handful of men chimed in with deep, guttural bellows.
“We have waited a long time to hear this house rock once again,” said Teslin Tlingit Chief Peter Johnston.
“It’s wonderful to lay aside our political agendas and community concerns and just take the time to celebrate in the moment,” said John Ward, newly elected chief of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
Outside the Heritage Centre sat three massive cedar logs.
Rumoured to be windstorm casualties from Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the logs are slated to become commemorative totem poles.
At the lakeshore following the opening ceremony, 400 kilograms of salmon — a gift from the Taku River Tlingit — were ceremonially unloaded from a moored float plane.
“People from Alaska who have never seen this before, this is how we fish in Teslin,” said Duane Aucoin, an executive councillor with the Teslin Tlingit First Nation.
An eagle and a raven soared overhead — the First Nations’ equivalent of an air force flypast.
Bits of the salmon were cut and scattered ceremonially as an offering to the birds, “to let them feast with us,” said Aucoin.
A dark shape appeared at the other side of the lake.
Thinking it was a moose, the gathering erupted into cheers and drumming.
Closer, the shape turned out to be a canoe.
“Good thing nobody shot at it,” said Aucoin.
By “imitating our ancestors,” Ha Kus Teyea allows Tlingit youth to be gently seduced into their cultural roots, said Lance Twitchell (Tlingit name Xh-unei), a member of the Alaska Tlingit delegation.
“This is the only way you learn your language or culture, not sitting in a classroom or from a book,” said Aucoin.
Entice the Tlingit youth with traditional food and music, and they’ll come away with Tlingit language and thinking.
“My auntie Florence calls it ‘Tlingit brainwashing,’” said Twitchell.
Tlingit is not only language, food and culture — but “a whole different way of thinking of the world,” he said.
“Relationships between people, land, animals; it’s very, very different than this non-Tlingit way of thinking that has been imposed.
“We existed on the same level as everything else.”
At the celebration, the Alaska Tlingits highlighted their coastal home by wearing cedar hats and carrying canoe paddles.
Doug Chilton, a carver from Juneau, switched things up with a woven-cedar fedora.
At the opening procession, George Johnston’s car led the assembled Tlingits.
The venerated Tlingit elder purchased the car in 1928 with fur-trading funds and shipped it to Teslin by paddlewheeler.
Teslin only had rough walking trails, so Johnston cleared six kilometres of road by hand.
In the winter, he painted the car white to hunt on the surface of the frozen lake.
The car, and the road that accompanied it, baffled Alaska Highway engineers who thought they were in the middle of nowhere.
The modern highway now incorporates Johnston’s original road.
The highway brought contact with the outside world, but it also brought Roman Catholic missionaries.
“Religion is what separated our people,” said elder Sam Johnston.
Totems were cut down, native languages were banned and children were sent to residential school.
At the opening ceremony, Teslin deputy chief John Peters Jr. addressed all those who had been to residential school.
“Nobody’s holding you down no more … we’re going to bring our language back, our culture back,” he said.
When Alaska achieved statehood in 1958, Tlingits further found themselves divided not only culturally, but cartographically.
“The border has been a problem for us, and ironically, it’s still a problem for us,” said celebration organizer Sharon Shorty.
Two Alaska delegations had originally been slated to attend Ha Kus Teyea — but new passport restrictions held them back.
The Tlingit are traditionally a coastal people, but starting about 200 years ago, a contingent comprising five clans moved inland.
As to why, explanations differ from elder to elder.
The move was motivated by the fur trade, said Sam Johnston.
In search of warmer furs to supply to Russian traders, the Tlingit started hunting wolf and moose, rather than seal, he said.
Inland Tlingits never lost touch with their coastal roots.
Of the five clans that make up the Teslin Tlingit, one is the Daklaweidi, or, Killer Whale clan.
The traditional home of the Teslin Tlingit, however, lies hundreds of kilometres from the nearest killer whale.
Pre-contact, trading routes and frequent cross-migration maintained close ties between the inland and coastal Tlingits, resulting in a uniquely hybrid culture.
Whether inland or coastal, the Tlingit enjoyed the best of both worlds. Shellfish and deepsea products such as halibut were brought to the interior.
Settling in communities bordering large bodies of water flanked by mountains, inland Tlingits even settled in coastal-like landscapes, said Shorty.
Moose, goat, and porcupine meat — the bounties of the valleys — were brought to the coast, as was copper, which soon came to adorn the cloaks of wealthy coastal Tlingits.
Button blankets, a staple of West Coast First Nations like the Haida, curiously adorned the inland Tlingit.
Their neighbours, the Kaska Dena, meanwhile, wore moosehide cloaks decorated with beads and fur.
At Ha Kus Teyea, the coastal/inland cultural Tlingit fusion continued.
Close to the lakeshore, a small group worked at preparing a moosehide from an animal shot in the forest around Teslin.
Only a few steps away, another group readied Taku River salmon for the smokehouse.
The first contact by European settlers, other than Russians, with the Tlingit was not a pleasant one.
In 1852, only months after the establishment of the Fort Selkirk fur trading post in the Yukon, a party of Chilkat Tlingit from the Alaska Panhandle burned it down.
Kohklux, a future Tlingit chief, later told an anthropologist that he had been part of the Fort Selkirk raiding party.
“(Kohklux) had the nerve to burn down our Fort Selkirk,” joked Yukon MP Larry Bagnell in a speech at the opening ceremony.
From the Alaska delegation, a descendant of Kohklux thanked Bagnell for the shout-out.
For coastal Tlingits, the inland is like a cultural time capsule, said Aucoin.
When French settlers first came to Quebec 400 years ago, they spoke a 17th-century version of French, the echoes of which can still be seen in modern Quebec French.
Similarly, the inland Tlingits reflect a pre-migration form of coastal language and culture.
“When you look at the inland culture, it’s basically how the coastal culture was 200 years ago,” said Aucoin.
Ha Kus Teyea rekindled the pre-contact Tlingit tradition of intertribal gatherings.
Traditionally, Carcross Tlingits would walk the Atlin trail as far as the south shore of Teslin Lake.
There, they would light fires and fire a gun into the air.
Seeing the signal, Teslin Tlingits would then dispatch canoes to go pick them up.
For Ha Kus Teyea, the tradition was re-enacted.
The experience reminded elder Ida Calmegan from Carcross of walking the trail as a little girl.
She recalled her family coming upon a gathering of 17 moose.
Unused to humans, a particularly large moose started moving towards them.
“That moose just kept coming closer and closer; I got really scared and asked my mom, ‘Is he going to eat us?’” said Calmegan.
“No, we’re going to eat him,” replied her mother.
Elders and leaders occasionally took the opportunity to give reminders on Tlingit semantics.
Teslin is traditionally pronounced as ‘Dey-tle-seen,’ noted Aucoin.
Carcross — a purely anglicized name — is traditionally known as ‘Naataase Heen’ (water running through the narrows).
The correct Tlingit pronunciation for Atlin is “Aw-tlin,” organizer Sharon Shorty told the crowd at the opening ceremony.
“For those of you who went to the ‘Aw-tlin’ Music Festival, now you know,” she said.
Even the word Tlingit itself is a bit of a phonetic quagmire.
Pronounced roughly as “klinkit,” the “Tl” is pronounced by touching your tongue to the roof of the mouth and blowing air out both sides.
Each year, the Tlingit language loses more speakers than it gains.
Maintaining it not only preserves the culture, but re-establishes a spiritual connection to the past.
“If you can’t speak the language, you can’t hear what your ancestors are trying to tell you,” said Twitchell.
A specially selected Tlingit song was sung at the official opening.
Roughly translated, it said, “Again we will open that box of wisdom left in our care,” explained Aucoin.
The culture is not dead, but it will take work to reopen the box of wisdom.
“It’ll take just as much hard work to put us into a healthy place as it took to put us in this unhealthy place,” said Twitchell.
Contact Tristin Hopper at